Bits and Pieces

Welcome to my blog. I hope to share some of the lessons I've learned during my travels to help make your trip more fun and less stressful. I also plan to keep everyone updated when I'm on the road. When I run out of ideas for travel articles, I'll share some writing tips that can help in any profession. 

Please feel free to submit comments, questions and suggestions so I will know that somebody is out there. Thanks for reading and don't forget to check out my photos. Better yet, feel free to buy some. 

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Olympic Facts for Those Who Can’t Get Enough of the Games

August 03, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

The 2012 Olympics offer an unprecedented amount of coverage, with programming running almost around the clock on several television 

photo of Mini keychain
Official souvenir of the 2012 Olympics

channels. In addition, fans can keep up online and with apps for smartphones and tablets. As the media scrambles to keep our attention, they continue to churn out obscure facts about London, the Olympics and specific athletes. Following is a list of some of the oddest and most interesting things I have learned during the first week of the Games. I'm not sure if it's all true, but it's what I've heard. 

  1. The London Tube is the oldest subway system in the world, dating back to the mid-1800s. It’s been around so long that a species of mosquito unique to the Tube has had time to evolve.
  2. London taxi drivers have to memorize the location of all of the streets and landmarks in the city, and they must pass a test to qualify for the job. The pass rate is only 50 percent.
  3. While tea is the most popular drink in England, with 156 million cups consumed per day, it was such a rare commodity in the 17th century that servants weren't permitted to touch it. The Brits give credit to the Duchess of Bedford for giving birth to the ritual of afternoon tea, but claim that the requirement of extending the pinkie is a myth.  
  4. The Olympic medals are stored in a vault in the Tower of London until they are awarded to the winners of each event. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the grounds of the Tower of London, the white tower will crumble, and the monarchy will fall. Therefore, London’s most popular tourist attraction is required to have six ravens on hand at all times. There are also two backups in case something happens to the official birds. A group of ravens is called an unkindness, not a flock. The opponents of Baltimore’s football team probably consider this an appropriate name.  
  5. Michael Phelps consumes 12,000 calories per day. That’s six times the recommended rate for the average man.
  6. London is hosting the Olympics for the third time, but Queen Elizabeth’s grand entrance in 2012 marked the first time she has attended the opening ceremonies.
  7. In another first, Wimbledon will not enforce the rule that tennis players wear predominantly white during the Olympics. Showing her true colors, Venus Williams is sporting a patriotic hairdo with red, white and blue braids.
  8. While, the governments of most countries fund the athletes who participate in the Olympics, the American government does not.
  9. The men and women who marched under the sign of Independent Olympic Athletes in the parade of nations at the opening ceremonies come from the former Netherlands Antilles and the newly formed South Sudan.
  10. While I can’t verify that volleyball is the only Olympic sport that has cheerleaders, I have not seen them at any other event in London, nor have I noticed them at a previous Olympics. Along the same lines, beach volleyball matches now feature dancers.
  11. Horses that participate in the equestrian events must have a passport and a microchip to travel. The American team’s horses were placed in huge containers and flown to London in FedEx planes.
  12. The marathon has been one of the most well-known events since the Olympics began, but the women’s event was not introduced until 1984.
  13. The Australian flag is red, white and blue, but the country’s athletes normally wear green and gold uniforms. The Australian athletic community adopted these colors after its country’s cricket team wore them during a British tour in 1899. Green and gold represent the golden wattle, Australia’s national flower, as well as the colors of the landscape.
  14. The last Olympic gold medals that were made entirely out of gold were awarded in 1912. This year’s medals, designed by British artist David Watkins, are the heaviest and largest in Olympic history. 
    photo of Michael Phelps
    This guy needs no introduction.
The following story was not discussed during the Olympics, but I heard it several months ago, and it stuck with me. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens famously humiliated Hitler by winning four gold medals. His roommate Louis Zamperini, although virtually unknown, was also a hero. A member of the Army Air Corps, his plane was shot down in 1943, and he survived 47 days at sea before becoming a prisoner of war for two years. Captain Zamperini won several awards for his valor.  He wrote “Devil at My Heels” and is the subject of the book “Unbroken,” both of which tell the story of his remarkable life.  
 
Please share the interesting trivia you have learned during the Olympics. 

Culture Club: Asian Pop Comes to Town

July 28, 2012  •  2 Comments

While most of the world was focused on London this weekend, there was a whole lot of activity in my neighborhood, too. With the Orioles in town, an army of orange turned out to support the team in its bid to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Down the street at M &T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, Tottenham and Liverpool drew a more international set for their soccer match. While it wasn’t always obvious which of these events people were attending, there was no doubt about who was in town for the third big affair, the Otakon convention.
 
I’m not really sure what Otakon is all about, but when 31,000 teenagers in strange costumes take over the streets around the Baltimore Convention Center every year, I know it’s time for the convention. According to the Otacon website, this event is for the otaku generation, honoring anime, manga, and all facets of Asian pop culture. I don’t know what that means, but I do know that the kids are well behaved, friendly and happy to pose for pictures, so they’re alright in my book.
 
You have to see it to believe it, so here you go. 
 
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Otakon photo
 
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Get Your Art on in Baltimore

July 23, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

If you’ve never been to Baltimore, your impression of the city has probably been formed by the television shows Homicide and The Wire, 
Joanne Drummond Photography: Baltimore &emdash;
John Waters has made Baltimore
famous for its quirky characters.
two gritty series about drugs, murder and corruption. After living downtown for 16 years, I can tell you that everything you see is accurate–broken families, failing schools, political corruption, gang violence, teen pregnancy, STDs and substance abuse. We’re known to many as the City that Breeds, the City that Bleeds and a few other titles that are nothing to be proud of.
 
But there’s a lot more to Baltimore than you see on TV. There’s also the Baltimore of John Waters, creator of the hit Hairspray and several other quirky films that accurately portray the many loveable, offbeat characters with big hair and strange accents who have earned us the name Charm City.   
 
Art Lives Here
If you scratch off the grimy reputation, you’ll discover that Baltimore is a cultural gem. The city is filled with so many museums and other sites that feature world-class art, music, literature, history and theatre that you’ll never have time to see it all if you visit. In fact, after all these years, I still haven’t.
 
This weekend, Baltimore showed off its finer side by putting on Artscape, the largest free arts festival in the US. For three days every year, visitors from across town and across the country try to take in as much of Artscape as they can cover. The festival features every form of art you could think of and then some. The most popular attractions are the hundreds of booths filled with unique treasures created by local artists and at least five stages that offer music of every genre. This year’s national acts included Brian McKnight, Clutch and Rebirth Brass Band. Artscape also offers visitors the opportunity to find out about what’s new at local museums, pick up giveaways from national sponsors, enjoy street performers and take in short features by local filmmakers.
 
Welcome to Wonderland
Joanne Drummond Photography: Baltimore &emdash;
A walk down Charles Street is a surreal experience during Artscape. 
Artscape’s borders have expanded to include Charles Street, which was converted into a fantasy land. In strolling the few blocks, I felt like I was living Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. I passed three stages, one of which was made of pallets; a knitted port-a-potty; a houseboat topped by a guy wrapped in a snake and a band; a rock opera performed by a cast of medieval punks; a turkey breast children’s ride; an enormous crash-test dummy; a large drawing of John Waters’ head, an art car exhibit and a fashion show. My favorite was a human exhibit that I think was supposed to be an artful interpretation of some down and out folks.
 
The most impressive part of the festival was that it brings together people of just about every race and economic class, and everybody gets along. Funny thing about art. It always seems to melt away the differences among people, yet it’s the first thing that gets cut when budgets are tight. Perhaps if we started replacing guns with guitars, our streets wouldn’t be littered with bullets and drug paraphernalia.
 
Dance more, sing more, make art more, Baltimore.

Check out more of my photos from Artscape. 

6 Rules for Finding the Best Airfare

July 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Many travelers are staying closer to home or making the long drive to their destination these days as the cost of a plane ticket becomes more unaffordable. If flying is your only option, and you don’t have wads of cash or piles of frequent flier miles, try these tips when searching for your next flight.
 

Photo of Paris

Use these tips if driving to your destination isn't an option.
1. Know when to book.
Look for flights at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. This is when the low-cost airlines like Southwest publish their specials. The larger airlines follow suit within the next few hours. Prices tend to rise by the weekend. Rates can change quickly, and other travelers can snatch up the cheap seats, so if you find a good price, jump on it. Note that the Tuesday rule applies to domestic fares. International fares don’t seem to change on a set schedule.
 
Don’t book more than two to three months in advance. Rates usually fall a few months before the departure. 
 
2. Know where to look.
Websites like kayak.com and farecompare.com search several sites to come up with a list of available flights and prices. They can also lead you to more convenient flight schedules you wouldn’t find on an airline’s sight because they mix flights with other airlines. Note that some airlines, including Southwest, do not appear on these sites.
 
At airfarewatchdog.com, users can enter their closest airport to come up with a list of the best prices for flights to cities throughout the United States as well as some international cities. Users can also sign up for weekly emails with the best flight prices, many of which are unadvertised. 
 
3. Be flexible.
I clicked the “My dates are flexible” option on the last flight I booked, and I ended up saving more more than $1,000 by changing my departure date by two days. I can’t promise you’ll be as lucky as I was, but you can often save a decent amount of money if you’re willing to change your schedule by a few days. Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the cheapest days to fly, and the old rule about flying more cheaply if you stay over on a Saturday no longer applies.
 
4. Be social.
Some airlines release special offers on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter before revealing them to the rest of the world. You can also learn about deals from your city by registering for the airline’s email list.
 
5. Check the schedule.
Many people buy the cheapest ticket without looking at the flight times. That’s a bad idea for a few reasons. Let’s say you want to spend a long weekend in New Orleans. You book a ticket that leaves on Friday and returns on Monday. Imagine all the fun you can have in four days in the Big Easy. In checking your itinerary, you notice that the flight arrives at 10:30 p.m. on Friday and departs at 7:00 a.m. on Monday. Add in the time it takes to travel to and from the airport, and you’ll arrive just in time for bed on Friday night, and you’ll have to be in bed just after dinner to make your early morning flight on Monday. That only gives you two days, not to mention that you’ll miss out on two nights on the town. After considering the money you’ve spent for a hotel for those two nights, it’s just a bad deal.
 
Transportation to and from the airport could be an issue depending on your flight times. You’re less likely to find a ride from a friend if you are flying early in the morning or late at night. That leaves expensive options like hiring a taxi or airport shuttle or parking in an airport lot. The tram near my house only costs $1.60 each way, so I try to book during its operating hours when possible. 
 
Direct flights are hard to find these days and are often priced much higher than those with connections.
If your flight has connections, beware of layover times. I’ll pay more to avoid a long layover, which costs me valuable time and often a good chunk of change on meals and snacks. I also pass on any itinerary with less than an hour between flights, even if they are in the same terminal, because if my first flight is late, I'll be mor likely to miss my connection and lose my luggage.
 
I have taken several international flights through JFK, which is the perfect storm for airport unpleasantness on the return trip. If you absolutely can’t avoid this airport, allow at least three hours between flights on the return trip. Since it’s the first port of entry in the country, all passengers must wait in long lines at Immigration, pick up their checked baggage, pass through Customs and check their baggage again. Then they must go to another terminal for their connecting flight, where they must pass through security. I have never spent less than 45 minutes in security, and they won’t send anybody to the front of the line for a flight that’s about to depart because everyone in line is facing that issue.
 
6. Add up the hidden costs.
Fees for checked bags, choosing seats and other services not included in the price of the ticket can add up, especially if you’re traveling as a family. Therefore, come up with a total cost before making your choice.
 
If you have any other tips for finding cheaper airfare, please share them here. 

My Memory of Lionel Batiste

July 09, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

When I was skimming headlines on msn.com last night, I was two stories down before my heart skipped a beat. Uncle Lionel Batiste is dead. Wait … what? I had to back up and read it again. Lionel Batiste. I know him!
 
To be honest, I don’t actually know Lionel Batiste, a huge figure in the New Orleans music scene, but he made a big impression when I ran into him about two years ago. As I was entering the courtyard of the legendary Preservation Hall to meet up with my jazz tour, he was finishing up a photo shoot.
 
Most of my family and friends know that I adore the music and culture of New Orleans. I’m also a huge fan of Tremé, the HBO series about the city, so I immediately recognized Uncle Lionel and his Tremé Brass Band drum.
 
All I could think of was getting a picture of that drum because I was certain that I would never come across anything that screams New Orleans like that beat up instrument. Had I known at the time that Uncle Lionel had used his drum to keep himself afloat in the post-Katrina floods, I probably would have passed out on the spot.
 
As I stood there trying to work up the courage to ask permission to take a picture, Uncle Lionel was packing up his things. I knew that he’d be gone in a few moments.
 
What if he thought I was crazy for asking? What did it matter since I’d never see him again? What if he said no? And why were the other few guests meandering around looking more interested in starting the jazz tour when a living, breathing musical giant was standing right in front of them?
 
Ah, what the hell? “Hi, do you mind if I take a picture of your drum?” I practically whispered, and my heart stopped as I waited for his response.
 
Slowly, he turned around and picked up his drum. Oh, no, you idiot! Why didn’t you just walk over and take the damn picture before he had a chance to move the drum? I can’t believe I upset him so much that he’s going to hide it. Now I’ll never get my shot!
 
Suddenly, he turned to face me and struck a pose with the drum. This was too good to be true! My heart resumed beating and began to pound furiously. I only had seconds to get the shot. I was looking straight into the sun. I was too close to get a full body shot.
 
He started to lower the drum, and I snapped as quickly as I could, praying for the best. Then, despite his age and frail build, he disappeared with his drum in an instant.
 
I spent the next few minutes willing my heart back to its normal pace, trying to look nonchalant about my run-in with a legend. Inside the tiny, dark hall, I struck up a conversation with the photographer, who explained that he was working on a book of photos of famous musicians posing with their instruments. He soon excused himself to shoot his next subject, Mardi Gras Indian chief Monk Boudreau, who was waiting patiently while we wrapped up our chat.
 
I don’t know whether it’s the Southern culture or the fact that musical talent is the norm in New Orleans, but it’s remarkable to me that musicians in this town mingle with the masses and don’t put on any airs. In any other city, they would be surrounded by an entourage and a throng of fans and paparazzi. Despite this unusual attitude, I preferred to focus on my success in shooting Batiste rather than pushing my luck with Boudreau, so I faded into the shadows to wait for the tour.
 
When the tour guide called us together and led us back into the light of day on St. Peter Street, he offhandedly revealed the identities of the gentlemen we had seen inside. The rest of the group, assuming the New Orleans attitude, seemed unimpressed. As for me, it was the highlight of my trip and a memory that will last a lifetime.
 
Rest in peace, Unc. Enjoy your second line.
 
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